Are you suffering from chronic stiffness or pain and not seeing any progress? Are you struggling to make lifestyle changes? Perhaps your physical issues are not just in your tissues but also in your nervous system. Stress may be a factor in your physical symptoms.
Imagine being chased by a hungry tiger for a second. The survival response would involve the nervous system flooding your body with stress hormones (cortisol and adrenaline) giving you extra energy to prepare you to either fight or run away from danger.
In a life or death situation, we do want this fight-or-flight response. After the stressful event is over, we come down from the stress response - we might shake, cry, feel strong emotions and then engage back with the external world with zero stress left in our body.
Another potential response that our body can have is to totally freeze when under stress. This stress response is often associated with a past history of trauma. When faced with a stressful situation, you may find yourself completely stuck and unable to take action. Your challenge is to break free from your state of immobility by rebooting your nervous system and reactivating the body’s natural “fight-or-flight” response to stress. Physical movement that engages both arms and legs, such as walking, swimming, running, dancing or climbing can be particularly helpful. As you move, you want to focus on your body and the physical sensations you feel in your feet, legs and arms instead of going over past events or planning ahead. This mindfulness element can help your nervous system become “unstuck” and move on.
Even though we are very unlikely to be chased by a tiger in our day and age, modern living is far from stress-free - we may feel disconnected from our natural environment, from other people, from our work or from ourselves for a number of reasons. Tension can creep up in the neck and shoulders as we work long hours to meet a deadline or as we stay up all night with a sick child. Stress levels mount as we respond to the demands put upon our minds and our bodies in our daily lives. If we don’t recognise and process this stress regularly, we get unconsciously stuck in a series of stress responses to events that happened yesterday, last week, last year or 20+ years ago. This is not healthy!
Unfortunately, our brain finds it hard to detect unhealthy levels of stress, which can cause or worsen health problems, including symptoms of pain and autoimmune disease. We need to learn to pause and check in with our body a few times each day so that stress doesn’t get a chance to accumulate unnoticed.
Ideally we would release stress as and when it hits us, so it doesn’t build up inside and become chronic, draining all our energy. For this, we need to listen to our nervous system and learn to identify and release built-up stress. Some signs of unhealthy stress levels are an inability to concentrate, disturbed sleep, chronic fatigue, seeing only the negative, anxiety, aches and pains, procrastinating or nervous habits such as nail biting or craving sugary food.
Stress resides in the body, not the brain. It is a physical response, so we need to go within the body to process and release it before it leads to serious health conditions. Stress release is about feeling, not thinking. We need to stop ruminating, worrying, over-analysing and get back in touch with our bodies. We need to befriend our physical sensations instead of fearing them, ignoring them or fighting them.
This is what I recommend to reconnect to the body:
Just to demonstrate that change is possible, look at the photos below, taken three years apart.
This is me in June 2017, really struggling with stiffness and pain in my back, neck and shoulders which built up over years of accumulated stress and lack of real connection to my own body, despite doing yoga and Pilates for many years. This photo was taken after over a year of restorative exercise. Being in this position really exposed the stress I was carrying in my body.
This is me in July 2020, feeling much happier in my body, with much improved mobility in the ankles, feet, back, hips, shoulders and neck.
I have put together a quick guide on how to de-stress - worth practising when not in a stressful situation so it's easy to use in an emergency situation!
Further reading: Understanding the Stress Response - Chronic activation of this survival mechanism impairs health
I recommend watching Dr Gabor Mate on When the Body Says No - Caring for ourselves while caring for others and other videos.
Consider listening to my self-care audio guide (available in the Virtual Treatment Room).
Further help is available in the Virtual Treatment Room, where you have opportunity to tune in to your own body. I show you how you can observe and feel how various joints can move, observe what their current limitations are and discover their potential for movement. Stress and tension tend to accumulate in parts of the body that haven't moved much over the years so we introduce movement gently back. By moving stuck parts individually of each other, it is possible to restore fluid movement and dramatically reduce pent-up tension over time.